by Dwight Alleyne, DVM
Does your pet become very vocal when exposed to loud sounds or when separated from you? Are they the type to pant heavily or pace around in that same scenario? If that is the case, then your pet may suffer from anxiety.
Depending on the cause, managing a dog’s panic attack or a cat’s anxious episode can be a challenge. But don’t fear if your pet is having an anxiety attack. We will discuss what can cause panic attacks in your furry companions and what you can do to help. We’ll also let you know the signs showing you may need help from a pet psychologist.
Common Causes of Anxiety
One of the most important steps in treating anxiety in your pet is to determine the cause. Is your dog or cat just fearful in general? Are there certain stimuli that serve as a trigger? Is there a change in the environment contributing to anxiety? Answering these questions is the first step in calming your pet.
Pets don’t always need triggers to have anxiety. They can seem anxious all the time no matter what is going on. A previous traumatic event or genetics may play a role in this. Your pets may pace, pant and vocalize at random times. Nothing may seem to calm them down.
Most pets like peace and quiet. A crack of lightning or loud fireworks are very disruptive. In response, your pet may cling to you seeking your protection. Whining may be constant and never seems to come to an end. Also, fruitless attempts of escape may occur leading to destruction of property and self-harm. Another scenario is they may hide, and you may not find them for hours after a noise triggers them.
Your pets look up to you as their caretaker. While that is a good thing, there are pets who develop an unhealthy attachment to you for your kindness. So if you leave the house to go to work, school or otherwise, they will let it be known that they miss you. This is not displayed in a good way: Your dog may bark the whole time you are away, rip your favorite pair of shoes to shreds, or relieve themselves in areas they know are off-limits.
Treatment Options for Anxiety
Fortunately, many options are available to help your anxious pet. Some remedies can be used for any type of the mentioned anxieties, while others require a specified treatment.
This protocol may require help from a pet psychologist or professional animal trainer. The premise of counterconditioning is to desensitize your pet to anxiety triggers. If your pet is sensitive to a particular sound, then you want to introduce them to the sound in a controlled positive environment. This may involve playing recordings of the specific sound and adjusting the volume, promoting positive reinforcement.
Avoiding triggers is another technique and can work well with separation anxiety. There are certain cues our pets can pick up on indicating we are leaving the premises.
Daily patterns can be changed or hidden, which may help mitigate the anxiety response.
Distraction techniques are also useful if you know an anxiety-inducing event is coming up. Try to distract your pet with their favorite toy or treat.
If your pet is showing early signs of anxiety or the signs are not too severe, consider some great natural options such as calming chews. These contain ingredients that are believed to increase natural anti-anxiety neurotransmitters in the body. CBD oil is another natural option that is currently being evaluated for its potential effects on anxiety. Research has shown CBD receptors are located throughout the brain, and studies are looking at what effect the receptors have on the body when activated by CBD oil (it is thought they may help decrease feelings of stress and fear). It’s important to note here that research on CBD and domesticated animals like cats and dogs is extremely limited, and much more is needed to fully understand the effects of CBD on your pet.
Anecdotally, many veterinarians and pet owners have noted that CBD oil may help animals cope with external stress and maintain a normal and calm disposition.
Prescription medications are considered when signs are severe enough for concern. Concerning behaviors include damage to property, harm to themselves or aggression toward humans or other animals. Also, if you are experiencing interrupted sleep because of constant whining or howling, therapeutic intervention is appreciated. Common drug choices prescribed by veterinarians include Trazadone, Xanax, Clomipramine and Prozac. These drugs work by either inhibiting anxiety-inducing processes in the body or enhancing the calming ones. Of course, you'll need to work with your veterinarian to determine if prescription medications are right for your dog.
When You Should Use a Pet Psychologist
Although you’re a hero to your pet, you can’t handle everything. If you find yourself struggling with your pet’s anxiety after taking some of the steps outlined above, it may be time to call in a professional. These signs listed below may also indicate you need help from a pet psychologist.
- Your pet is destructive, chewing furniture and breaking through crates.
- You are getting noise complaints from your neighbors or are not getting enough sleep because of your pet’s vocalization.
- Your pet is causing harm to themselves through biting, scratching or trauma from trying to escape from their crate.
- Heightened aggression from the anxiety is increasing the risk for harm to others.
So What Can a Pet Psychologist Do for You?
A pet psychologist is any individual specially trained in pet behavior. They could be a veterinarian or a certified trainer. Not only are these professionals helpful in addressing the signs listed above, but they are also informed on the best counterconditioning methods and combination of medications based on the cause of anxiety. Pet psychologists will provide guidance based on you and your pet’s circumstances. Many times, they will come to your place of residence to help you implement those techniques within the home.
Though anxiety is a common condition in pets, it can be managed effectively with the methods discussed. Once you discover the specific cause behind it, you are well on your way to easing your pet’s nervous and restless behavior. Whether it is bringing them to a pet psychologist or giving methods like training and CBD tinctures or chews a try, there are great options to help your furry best friend.
Dr. Dwight Alleyne is a veterinarian who has over a decade of experience treating cats and dogs. He is also the creator of the Animal Doctor Blog, where he provides general health advice and pet-product reviews.